SiriusXT microscope -“an extremely exciting, potentially game-changing technique”

Image Credit: Laoise Tarrant

Orlaith Doherty details the awarding of the Horizon 2020 European Union research and innovation programme to SiriusXT and two UCD researchers, whilst stressing how our relationship with the planet is more important than ever in approaching viral problems.

The Horizon 2020 European Union research and innovation programme is the funding body that aims to couple research with innovation, and is forwarding a method of driving economic growth and knowledge acquisition. SiriusXT has been awarded 2.35 million euro as part of this programme with the aim of their research being to gain further insights into viral disease pathways which will allow for the future development of novel therapeutics. It is a spin-out company from UCD School of Physicscompany and the award was shared with two UCD researchers who are partners with the company on the CoCID (Compact Cell-Imaging Device) project. Understanding viral disease pathways has never been more important as viral diseases including COVID-19, the Spanish Flu, and Ebola reflect the capacity viruses have for causing global upheaval. It is important to understand the larger context underlying the increasing viral contagions which are degradation of wildlife habitats and ultimately the climate crisis.

Diseases that originate in animals and cross over to humans are known as zoonotic viral diseases and are becoming more prevalent according to the United Nations Environmental Programme and the International Livestock Research Institute Report 2020. The majority of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic as a result of increasing unnatural contact of humans with wildlife. This increased contact is caused by wide-scale economic invasion such as industrial agriculture into wildlife habitats. This results in increased acute human exposure to habitats which affects the humans and habitat inhabitants negatively. These habitats often serve as our most effective natural carbon sinks acting as a proxy to the increased greenhouse gas production of our cities. SARS, MERS, Ebola and Hepatitis E are all zoonotic diseases that have afflicted human health in the last 30 years which would not have occurred without the increased encroaching on natural habitats. 

UCD researchers are contributing to the global biological understanding of zoonotic viruses which will allow future understanding of the commercial effect on viral contagions. SiriusXT, using research completed by UCD School of Physics, has developed a highly specialized ‘soft x-ray’ microscope that can clearly visualise the whole internal structure of biological cells. The microscope takes 3D images that aim to improve scientific understanding of viral disease causation and diffusion by enabling researchers to better understand the pathway of viral diseases and detect rare events that coincide with subtle subcellular changes. 

SiriusXT’s microscope uses soft x-rays which allows for the imaging of intact cells without the need for staining or chemical modification. The resolution provided is between the ranges of electron tomography and fluorescent imaging and utilises the natural absorption of soft x-ray by cells to produce near-native images. SiriusXT has built the first commercial, lab-scale, soft x-ray microscope. Tony McEnroe, CEO and co-founder of SiriusXT, says “this project award not only helps fund the advancement of our SXT-100 microscope, it also allows SiriusXT to collaborate closely with European leaders in virology research”.

The two UCD scientists leading this research, Professor Nicola Fletcher from UCD School of Veterinary Medicine and Professor Dimitri Scholz from UCD Conway Institute, are partnered with SiriusXT in the international project CoCID.  This project has to date received a total of 5.67 million euro in funding. The CoCID project provides insights into the cellular beginnings of viral diseases including hepatitis C, hepatitis E, herpesvirus and COVID-19. It also contributes to the discovery of novel therapeutic drugs for these diseases. UCD participation in the CoCID project will enable UCD researchers to gain early access to the SiriusXT microscope through the UCD Conway Institute. 

UCD Professor Nicola Fletcher will use the soft x-ray microscope to accelerate scientific understanding into cross-species transmission mechanisms of the hepatitis E virus, a zoonotic virus associated with the consumption of pork products and shellfish. She outlines that the aim of their research with the funding awarded is “to explore new treatment options for this important viral infection”. She describes the SiriusXT microscope as “an extremely exciting, potentially game-changing technique that will allow us to visualize virally infected cells in exquisite detail”. This research focuses on emerging zoonotic viruses and adds to insights that others, including UCD researchers, have contributed to in the understanding and occurrence of hepatitis E, with UCD Professor Suzie Coughlan completing a study exploring the incidence of hepatitis E in Irish pigs and pork products in 2019. 

Zoonotic virus outbreaks are at risk of increasing due to the unsustainable scale of industrial expansion into wildlife habitats and in part to climate change. If industries are allowed to continue this encroachment into wilderness for economic gain, pathogens present innocuously in animals can populate the human body and develop into deadly human viruses. As the UN has reported, the neglect of nature has led to physical threats in the form of climate change, but it has also given rise to biological existential threats such as new epidemics and pandemics.

Our lives are codependent on the preservation of diverse species and habitats alongside our in-depth scientific understanding of viral disease pathways. The funding awarded to Professor Nicola Fletcher, Professor Dimitri Scholz, and SiriusXT reflects the quality of the contributions UCD researchers are making towards the global understanding and treatment of viral diseases. We urgently need this scientific research, however, the progress made by this research needs to be equally matched with global coordinated political and economic efforts required to redirect us to a healthier, safer way of living. This collective approach will ensure that these scientific discoveries have a beneficial impact on human health.